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CommunityHealthMental HealthWhy a hobby is the ultimate ‘clear-out for your mind’

Pursuing a hobby not only gives enjoyment and pleasure, it is actually vital to our general mental and emotional well-being
Anna PukasAugust 12, 202213 min
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What happened to all those hobbies that you took up with during the pandemic? Knitting, wood-working, making bread and other baked goods?

Has it been replaced by a screen and a faster pace of life? Well if you’ve noticed a dip in your contentment levels, this could be why. Mental health experts report that having a hobby, which is just basically doing something — anything — that gives enjoyment and relief from everyday stresses, has never been so essential.

“It is absolutely important to pursue hobbies and there is a wealth of scientific literature that says so,” says Dr Sarah Rasmi, a psychologist and the managing director of the Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. “It can be something completely distant from your job or something tangential to it. A hobby serves several functions, but the important thing is that it gives you satisfaction and pleasure.”

Dr Rasmi points out that having a hobby “ticks every box” in the PERMA model – a set of five components that the American psychologist and proponent of “wellness psychology,” Dr Martin Seligman, stated were necessary for happiness: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments.

“Doing something you enjoy gives you positive emotions. When you are absorbed in your hobby and in a state of flow, almost on autopilot – that’s engagement. If you pursue a hobby with other like-minded people, you’re engaging with others and building relationships. Developing or enhancing a skill gives meaning to an activity and gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

As a specialist in relationship counseling, Dr Rasmi says pursuing a hobby is a valuable way for couples to connect, regardless of whether they indulge in that pastime together or separately.

“Enjoying a hobby together strengthens the connection to your partner, but pursuing a hobby away from your partner is an opportunity to engage with yourself and reassert your own identity as an individual, which is important in a relationship.”

If your working life consists of long days and interrupted evenings and weekends, the very notion of having the time for a hobby might well sound alien to you. But if we deny, or are compelled by others to deny ourselves that desire, we do so at our peril because hobbies are quite simply vital for mental and emotional well-being, says counselling psychologist Reem Shaheen.

“We all need to have a creative outlet for ourselves and there’s a ton of research that shows that those who don’t have that outlet tend to be on the spectrum of mental illness. A hobby gives you space to express yourself. Unlike work, you are not constrained by obligation or duty or the need to earn a living. A hobby is purely for your own pleasure. Really, a hobby is self-care.”

As well as enjoyment, a hobby also gives us the opportunity to stretch ourselves, whether physically or intellectually.

“Most of us have a tendency to limit ourselves, but self-expression comes from diversifying,” says Reem. “You might well choose to do something you’re good at, but the point is, you don’t have to excel.“

The dictionary definition of a hobby is “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure,” which leaves the field wide open, so start by asking yourself what your interests are. If left completely to your own devices, what would you choose to do?

If your job keeps you deskbound, do you relish the idea of being more active or of getting outdoors? Do you like the idea of a group activity or are you more of a solo performer?

Retired environmental engineer Terry de la Paz started to learn quilting years ago but had to put it aside to raise her family. When she moved from the US to Abu Dhabi three years ago, she found she had the time to pick up her quilting tools again.

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Finished quilt courtesy Terry de la Paz

“I started learning to quilt in my late 30s. The colors, shapes and construction of quilts fascinated me,” says the mother-of-two. “When I’m working on a quilt, I get lost in it. I’ll go hours without realizing how much time has passed. I love the mechanics of the craft – how to plan the quilt, picking the fabric, preparing and cutting it and piecing it all together. I watch how-to videos and collect books to help hone my skills. My mother didn’t sew, so I’m learned from scratch. It has definitely become a big part of my life and I love every minute.”

While growing up, Terry learned woodworking from her father and now uses that knowledge in another hobby – carrying out DIY projects. “I love basking in the knowledge that I was able to learn how to do something and did it well enough to feel proud,” she says. “I also read anything I can get hold of. It helps me get out of my head and reduce and manage stress and anxiety – and it’s completely portable. I can do it anywhere.”

The renowned singer Tony Bennett once said he had never worked a day in his life because he had made a career out of his passion. Judi Olson’s hobby of sewing and making costumes also turned into a career when she became instructor of costume design at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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Image courtesy Judi Olson

Judi  became hooked on sewing as a child, when her mother brought home a paper pattern for a Halloween costume.

“I thought it was so cool that everything you needed to make that costume was inside that little envelope,” she says. “I just wanted to build and make things with my own two hands. I remember thinking there was a kind of magic to it. I asked my parents for a doll’s house, not because I wanted to play with it, but because I wanted to build it.”

At summer camp she took classes in sewing and woodworking and when she lived in New York, Judi made costumes on the side to supplement her income.

“There is a real satisfaction in wearing something I’ve made or in watching a student learn that they can do it, too. I have years of experience now, but even a beginner can do so much and that’s really encouraging to anyone just starting. I really enjoy the process of making a piece of clothing and costume design includes so much more. In terms of producing a wearable item, I have a lot of other, overlapping hobbies – knitting, crochet, embroidery, weaving and so on – which I was able to do during the restrictions over the course of the past year.

“Even now that making costumes is my job, I can still get really excited about a project and have several going at once. It depends on the project of course, but the process of creating can be very healing and fun.”

And while you might not want to add one more thing to your to-do list, Dr Rasmi suggests thinking of it as ‘a clear-out of your mind’.

“We all need the time and space to reflect, think and simply be, especially these days when we are used to having so much stimulation with all the technology at our fingertips,” she says.

• This article ran originally in July 2021.

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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